Enabling Logistics in Contested Environments

By Alan R. Shaffer and Wilson Miles

Defense Dept. photo

The Defense Department has enjoyed decades of military supremacy. Because adversaries lacked the capability to target U.S. and allied forces and supplies in transit to a theater of operation, the military has conducted unobstructed deployment and resupply activities. Today, China has been identified as the “pacing threat,” ending the era of uncontested logistics.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff recognized the need for the department and each military service to modernize to meet this new challenge, leading to the creation of the Joint Warfighting Concept — a threat-informed operational document detailing how the Joint Force will operate and fight cohesively across all domains.

Contested logistics — a key tenet of the concept — describes a problem set, including increased threats to supply chains, reduced mobility and the need to operate in a resource-constrained environment.

To contribute to the conversation, the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute recently released “Enabling the Joint Warfight.” The report is based on several panel discussions hosted by ETI that focused on the capabilities and technologies necessary to address the operational challenges that the concept describes. The panels focused on building flexibility in logistics, plans and operations to ensure that the warfighter remains sufficiently supported during a future conflict.

To increase resiliency, the Defense Department must address key technical challenges. Tangible benefits will arise by improved data management, shortening the decision cycle time and building resiliency into command and control.

To plan for and adapt to logistics failures, data will need to be collectively visible to the Joint Force. Service stovepipes inhibit data management, which affects how the services coordinate delivering supplies such as replacement parts. There are several initiatives by the Joint Staff Logistics Functional Capabilities Board to understand how the services are gathering their data.

While there is some improvement in coordinating needs such as fuel, transparency and data-sharing between the services remains an uncomfortable but necessary step for supply chain visibility, interoperability and the development of artificial intelligence solutions for data management.

Better data management will also enhance the department’s ability to embrace digital engineering. Models, structured data and infrastructure are key to revolutionizing how the services approach the acquisition materiel lifecycle. In fact, ETI is working with the Air Force and Army on adopting digital materiel management capabilities to help facilitate collaboration between industry and government. For logistics, these processes will enable automated, data-driven decision-making, which will help proactively address issues, including diminishing manufacturing sources and materiel shortages.

The Defense Department’s ability to automate — or otherwise speed up — decision-making will be a key enabler of resilient logistics. This would allow commanders to make faster threat assessments and ensure logisticians can provide multiple materiel options in real-time. Machine learning tools can help support decisionmakers with analysis, namely network modeling, decision optimization and advanced pattern recognition — all of which will help the military respond more dynamically to a fast-paced battlespace.

The cyber and space domains play an integral role in the department’s ability to command and control, where increasing resiliency will be accomplished vis-à-vis distributed control.

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council is working to identify capabilities through experiments like live exercises, wargames and tabletop exercises. Operating successfully in a contested environment entails using different nodes, routes and distribution platforms.

However, combat is becoming so complex that it has begun to render live exercises insufficient for making informed decisions. Among the greatest needs is to invest in modeling and simulation experimentation tools to support the development, integration and transition of next-generation contested logistics solutions such as autonomous systems and additive manufacturing.

Lastly, the Defense Department will need to continue to enhance intra-agency, commercial and international relationships to create new ways of delivering fuel and supplies to the front lines. Access is key in a future conflict in the Indo-Pacific. By partnering with commercial industry, it can leverage shipping lanes and ports to build resiliency in its logistics operations.

At NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Conference in August, Defense Logistics Agency representatives noted their inventory managers are working with industry to support surge capacity and increase supply chain resiliency. The Defense Department is also seeking to establish agreements with international allies and partners in the region for needs such as airfields or distribution networks on the ground.

The department has identified last mile delivery as a current shortfall. Ultimately, harnessing commercial and international partner logistics capabilities will be crucial to solving infrastructure, force posture and delivery gaps.

While the Joint Warfighting Concept was created to prepare for a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific, the modernization changes it calls for will lead to benefits that are applicable to every combatant command. Capabilities such as faster decision-making loops and route optimization will give the Defense Department the agility to succeed in any 21st century fight. With these kinds of sustained investments, it can ensure it will operate effectively in contested environments by using its personnel and equipment as efficiently as possible. ND

Alan R. Shaffer served as deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. Wilson Miles is an associate research fellow at NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

Topics: Defense Department

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